'Ladies' Detective' film brings Tinsel Town to tiny Botswana

Alexander McCall Smith's hit book series set in Botswana is bringing big-screen money the African country.

Until Hollywood came to town, work was scarce for Botswana film producer Portia Molebedi Sorinyane. Her home country of dust and diamonds was her inspiration; but if she wanted a job, she had to cross the border into South Africa.

"There is no film industry here, so if you want to eat you need to move somewhere else," she says from behind a pair of trendy, oversized sunglasses.

But that, she hopes, is changing. This month, filming started on the first international movie ever to be shot in Botswana – The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, a movie based on Alexander McCall Smith's hit book series of the same name.

This means that Ms. Sorinyane has a gig as an assistant producer. It also means that her country of 1.7 million, whose economy is almost entirely dependent on diamond mining, may be the latest nation to cash in on Tinseltown's Africa fad and launch a lucrative new industry.

In many ways, it is fitting that the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency should be the launch of a film industry here. Mr. McCall Smith's series is set in Botswana, and focuses on the character Precious Ramotswe, a plucky, "traditionally-built" detective who solves fraud and misdeeds in Gabarone, the capital city.

The feel-good books exploded in popularity after Sept. 11, 2001 – they have been translated into 40 different languages and sold more than 15 million copies.

If all goes as planned, the movie will expand into a BBC series.

Seven years ago, when McCall Smith talked to producer Amy J. Moore about turning the series into a movie, both assumed that it would be shot in Botswana – the country that gives the story its flavor.

"We'd always talked about wanting to shoot here," says Ms. Moore, a self-described "occasional New Yorker" who has spent time in Botswana for the past 20 years. "But then there was this notion of budget."

How Botswana lured Hollywood

Because it did not have a film infrastructure in place, Botswana was expensive. South Africa and Namibia, on the other hand, both had established film industries. A slew of international productions – "Blood Diamond," "Beyond Borders," "10,000 B.C.," to name a few – have been shot in these countries; last year, South Africa's "Tsotsi" captured an Oscar and pushed the local film scene into the spotlight.

After crunching the numbers, Moore and the Weinstein Company, which is financing the film, decided they needed to shoot in South Africa – much, Moore says, to her disappointment.

But then Botswana's government stepped in.

"When we got wind of hearing that someone was interested in making the film, we got in touch with [McCall Smith], and then I got directly in contact with [Moore], and said we wanted to do it here," says Onkokame Kitso Mokaila, Botswana's minister of environment, wildlife, and tourism. "We saw an opportunity in this move to initiate a film industry."

After quickly moving the issue through the parliament and the cabinet, the government offered the filmmakers $5 million – enough to offset the costs of importing equipment and crew from South Africa.

It also made some demands: at least a third of the cast had to be from Botswana; the entire film had to be shot here – no running off to a studio back in the US. With one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, the government pointed out, the country was well able to provide this staff.

The filmmakers agreed to switch location.

"Film is all about make believe and we could shoot this anywhere," Moore says. "We could have gone to Arizona and shot in Arizona, or we could have gone to a place where they offered us economic subsidies, and that had similar light, and we would bring in the African costumes and we'd bring in the African people. But it would have been like ripping the heart out of the project."

McCall Smith says he was relieved, as well.

"I would have been embarrassed if it had been done elsewhere," he says from a car heading to the movie set. "I think people in Botswana would have felt a real sense of having been deprived of something."

Just outside downtown Gaborone, one can now find Speedy Motors – the car repair shop owned by J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe's suitor.

One recent day, a good percentage of the 200-person film crew was crammed into the garage (previously just an empty space, now convincingly filled with tools and rags), shooting a scene.

Forty-six percent of the film's crew members are from Botswana, Moore says; of the 41 actors with speaking roles, 26 are local. Additionally, there are 1,200 extras – including the women sitting across the street selling oranges, a typical Botswana roadside scene.

"OK, don't anticipate the car," calls Academy Award-winning British director Anthony Minghella.

Royal Shakespeare Company actor Lucian Msamati, who plays J.L.B. Matekoni, keeps his face blank until Grammy-winning soul singer Jill Scott, cast as Mma Ramotswe, drives up in her tiny white van – a vehicle with which readers of the book will be quite familiar.

Although Ms. Scott hadn't read the books before she auditioned for the role of Mma Ramotswe, she says she was taken by the script.

"I thought, 'Wow, a whole script with no sex, no violence, nothing that a child couldn't watch. That's really nice.' "

Scott gets out of the van and walks over to Msamati, talking in a perfect Botswana accent. Kgomotso Tshwenyego nods in approval.

Before the filming, Ms. Tshwenyego worked as a secretary at the University of Botswana. But after seeing an ad in the newspaper, she auditioned as a dialect coach for the crew. Minghella hired her.

"I told Anthony I didn't have any formal training," she says. "But that didn't bother him."

Now she works with the international actors, helping them widen their mouth and roll their Rs to sound local.

Other Botswana staffers have also vetted the script and costume designs, making sure that everything gives an accurate portrait of their country.

"Anyone who's watching this will have a good impression of life in Botswana," Tshwenyego says.

A positive, yet real, view of Africa

That is one of the aspects of this movie that appealed to Msamati, Scott's co-star. Although the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has taken some criticism for being too sunny and for ignoring disease and war, Msamati, who grew up in Zimbabwe, says it's a relief to work on a production that shows a truer, happier picture of the continent.

"No story is the be all and end all – they're beginnings," he says. "And this is a fantastic beginning. There is not a single white character, no well-meaning Westerner trying to help Africa. These are positive images of Africa and Africans."

Having the movie shot in Botswana accentuates those feelings, he says.

"That gives me a sense of responsibility," he says. "I must do it justice."

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